Question and Answer Session with Commissioner Olsen
by Sandra Dinsmore
Fishermen’s Voice asked a number of lobster fishermen what they would ask the Maine lobster industry’s new leader, Commissioner of Marine Resources Norman Olsen. Because lobster dealers market most of the state’s production, it seemed reasonable to include some of them, too. All spoken to seemed grateful that, as a fisherman put it, “Finally we’ve got somebody from within the state, somebody who knows what is going on in the state.” They also expressed hope and optimism in the governor’s choice for their leader.
A Downeast dealer who asked not to be identified said he’d like to see dealers have as level a playing field as that of fishermen. “It seems the DMR has no problem limiting licenses and entry to fisherman,” he explained, “but anyone and his brother can be a lobster dealer if he wants to pay the licensing fee.”
He noted that lot of dealers feel that there should be certain qualifications for becoming a lobster dealer that would possibly eliminate what a Portland dealer calls, “The guy with a pickup, scales, and a hound dog.”
Another Downeast dealer asked, “What about the fisherman who takes lobsters off his boat and peddles them for cash? All it does is mess up the dealers in all reality because he’ll sell it for less than other dealers [charge]. There’s got to be some kind of reporting there, or else fines if [a buyer is] taking the [product] and just paying cash for it.”
Olsen replied, “Governor LePage is not looking to put more rules; he’s not looking to restrict commerce, business or anything else, and [selling lobsters] is business. If there is a separate issue relating to the public health or to the sustainability of a resource, or something like that, then we look at regulations. But [it] would simply be a restriction of trade, a restriction of a business opportunity to say that some people can be lobster dealers and some people can’t.”
“People who are selling for cash are still liable to pay their taxes like anybody else,” Olsen said, adding, “a tax policy is not my issue… If you’re talking about lobster dealers and limiting entryto lobster dealership, that’s sort of like limiting entry to corner stores. You can’t limit lobster dealers unless there’s some other greater purpose such as maintenance of the public health or insuring sustainability of the resource.”
Milbridge fisherman and dealer Chad Dorr, who knows Olsen and had already asked him some questions, said, “I think he is level-minded and sees all points of view fairly.”
Deer Isle fisherman Leroy Bridges complained that trap tag fees pay for the Marine Patrol and that the Marine Patrol, “are out when it’s deer-hunting season. They’re out with the Inland wardens looking for jackers and are even making stops for speeders. They stop motorists,” he said, adding that because these duties lie outside of the fisheries and because the state considers the lobster fishery to be a public resource, the DMR should be funded by the state.
Olsen replied, “Lobster fishermen have been allowed a limited access fishery in which other members of the state of Maine, other citizens, have no right to participate. The average citizen of the state of Maine isn’t allowed to go out and catch lobsters and make a living from them, only the lobstermen are; so when you talk about it as a public resource, it is and it’s one for which individual lobstermen have been given a property right that is not available to other citizens of the state of Maine. But on the bigger issue, the Marine Patrol can be called upon in emergency or by other state law enforcement officers and agencies to help out in emergencies or in various situations. But I’d be hard put to have anybody prove to me that in more than, say, (I’m estimating here) five cases a year, a Marine Patrol officer was off tracking down deer jackers or stopping people for speeding violations.
“If you put the Maine Patrol at-sea hours and everything out there, you’ll find that maintaining the huge blanket of regulations that industry has asked to have placed on itself takes a lot of Marine Patrol time to enforce. Issues cross my desk every day of enforcement where people are doing things that other Marine resource users are reporting as violations.” He added, “In an emergency, such as the disappearance of a lobster boat at sea, or other catastrophe, Maine’s other law enforcement agencies kick in to help the Marine Patrol, so it works both ways.”
As to the trap tag fee, Olsen said, “The trap tag fee is a cost. It’s very much along the lines of user fees. That is: those that get the benefit have to pay the cost. And I would say this: at the point where the lobster industry is landing 93 million lbs. of lobster a year, [the trap tag fee] is actually a fairly reasonable cost for the benefits that accrue from it. If you didn’t have trap limits, you wouldn’t need trap tags.” He stated, “There’s a lot more to the DMR than just the salaries of wardens, including all the efforts we do to mitigate whale regulations, helping to manage the lobster zones, doing regulations, doing adjudications of violations. There’s a huge number of things that people don’t see.”
To Bridges’ complaint that the commissioner, having been appointed rather than elected, is accountable only to the administration, Olsen replied, “I would say that’s wrong. We’re totally accountable to the administration and the legislature and their representatives.”
Asked his views on lobster hatcheries, Olsen said, “I’d have to see the bang for the buck, and I don’t see it so far. At the point where you have 93 million lbs. of lobsters being harvested, 85 percent or so of which are at first recruitment level, they’ve just come over the measure. Then they average a pound and an eighth. That’s about 80 million individual lobsters. How many lobsters do you have to hatch at a hatchery—and if you put them overboard at a very small size, whatever that is: an inch, an inch and a half, there’s a certain high level of mortality. If you raise them to full size, there’s still some level of mortality; and in the end, what percentage of 80 million count lobsters would that be for the investment? And if you put them overboard, you still have to re-catch them. So, that’s why I come up with the calculation. If I see numbers that show there’s a per-pound value, a net return, that’s good. I’m neither for nor against them.”
As for the value of consolidating the Departments of Marine Resources and Inland Fisheries and Wildlife (IF&W), Olsen stated, “I’m against it because I have seen in my government career numerous attempts at consolidation, and I think they’ve been largely ineffective. They have not yielded savings. Our responsibilities at DMR are entirely separate from those at IF&W. And while we have a joint administrative center (that’s good, we have consolidated there) that works because it’s not the substance of the job, it’s the support activity. But there’s no overlap between what the people at DMR do and what the people at Inland Fisheries and Wildlife do, so you’d be consolidating simply to bring your numbers together, not to eliminate anything.”
To Corea fisherman Colby Young’s complaint about the futility of trying to fish using sinking rope, when he hadn’t seen a whale for the last 30 years inside the 50-mile line, Olsen said, “Regrettably, they do come inside,” and cited a recent whale entanglement 23 miles southeast of Bar Harbor. To Young’s statement that the DMR had set the distance from shore for using sinking rope “arbitrarily,” Olsen replied, “I hope that anything we do would not meet the definition of arbitrarily. On my watch, if we take an action, we will have justifiable, transparent reasons for doing so.”
Spruce Head lobster dealer William Atwood asked Olsen’s help by saying, “The established dealers need a voice in the lobster industry and they need a leader in the commissioner who will listen to the whole industry.”